John Palmer sits at a baby grand piano in the lobby of his Orlando apartment building, striking a few random chords for an audience of no one in particular. The 73-year-old, retired after decades of work at a retail garden center, doesn’t really play the instrument; he just likes the way the sound carries through the expansive room.
With its gleaming white walls, designer décor and 9-foot ceilings, Pendana Senior Residences at West Lakes looks like one of the luxury condo towers near Lake Eola. Instead, it’s a $24.5-million affordable apartment development, where rents start below $400 a month, built on what used to be one of the most downtrodden stretches of the city.
“Paradise,” Palmer says of the place. “I think I’ve found paradise.”
But the 120-unit complex — which opened in May 2020 and boasts a fitness center, theater room and swimming pool — isn’t the only sign of change for the neighborhood southwest of Camping World Stadium.
It’s one part of an ambitious effort to transform the historically Black community around it, not merely to make things prettier on the surface, but to fundamentally improve residents’ lives for generations to come.
Where years of segregation and institutional racism had left rows of condemned apartment units and vacant storefronts, where neighboring middle-class homeowners were once afraid to walk the streets, there is now a 480-acre West Lakes Community campus with $40 million in mixed-income housing, a top-tier early learning center owned and operated by AdventHealth, Central Florida’s newest and largest Boys & Girls Club and the initial construction of what will be a 30,000 square-foot wellness center with a café, fitness studio, community meeting rooms and a comprehensive primary-care clinic.
The wellness center marks the first-ever, large-scale collaboration between competitors AdventHealth and Orlando Health as well as health insurance giant Florida Blue — a testament to the clout behind the effort.
“Five years ago, where our early learning center is now, there was a dump. Literally, a dump,” says Terry Prather, the retired senior vice president of operations at SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment. “We pulled out tires, motorcycles [and] stolen vehicles. … It was just sort of a forgotten dumping ground. But what we saw was a community that had faced decades of under-investment.
“We thought, ‘What if we bought that land and connected some of those dots?’”
Prather is now chief operating officer of Lift Orlando, the nonprofit that grew out of conversations among leaders at Florida Citrus Sports, the event management company that runs what is now Camping World Stadium.
The story, as investment titan Tom Sittema often tells it, started about nine years ago, as the city of Orlando was about to spend $200 million to demolish and rebuild the stadium, then called the Citrus Bowl. Sittema, the former CEO of CNL Financial Group, was the board chair for Florida Citrus Sports, and he remembers looking out his office windows onto the neighborhood and being struck by the dismal expanse that greeted him.
“You just had to ask yourself, is that the best our city can do?” he said.
Building trust with the neighbors
But it is one thing to announce you are going to bring change to a neighborhood. It is quite another to get residents of the area to trust you — especially residents who have endured generations of discrimination.
“I really wanted to believe that they would be different,” said Tangia Hill-Smikle, 59, a homeowner near Lake Lorna Doone Park, whose parents bought a house on the lake in the 1960s.
Hers is one of the five predominantly Black neighborhoods between Parramore and Washington Shores where some 3,500 residents now live, bordered by Orange Blossom Trail, John Young Parkway, West Colonial Drive and Gore Street. They include the subdivisions of Lake Lorna Doone, Rock Lake, Clear Lake Cove, Lake Sunset and Clear Lake/Bunche Manor/Hollando.
“My first thought was that they were going to attempt to gentrify my neighborhood, take our homes and African-Americans would be pushed out,” she said. “You know, they’ve kept the value of our homes down so much over 50, 60 years, and in most instances, other races would come in and buy it.”
But Lift Orlando has earned her respect, she said, in part by helping to push through the $9 million renovation of Lake Lorna Doone Park — completed in June — a place where she had played as a child.
After decades of neglect, the former “Lake Eola of the west side” now includes a nature trail, fitness stations, ADA-accessible playground, miniature golf, an art garden and a splash pad.
“It has been one of the greatest rides of my life — being able to see a community come together around a compelling vision for its future,” Eddy Moratin, president of Lift Orlando, said in March. “We say our vision is a neighborhood where children grow up with hope and return with joy” — and, he added, have an opportunity to become homeowners themselves.
In 2013, before the city razed the dilapidated Washington Shores Apartments on Orange Center Boulevard, Moratin began meeting with each of the smaller neighborhood associations and coaxing them to join in a community-wide meeting, something no one had done before.
The groups wound up forming their own nonprofit, the West Lakes Partnership, to give them a united voice in collaborating with Lift and determining their destiny. They’ve also won grants to buy homes within their neighborhoods, renovate them, and sell them to young families.
“We always try to keep investors out because investors don’t do nothing but get that rent money and not look back,” said Shirley Bradley, 86, the organization’s treasurer, who has lived in the Clear Lake/Bunche Manor/Hollando subdivision since 1963.
“I will say I feel optimistic,” she said. “I think what they’ve done with that [Lift campus] property is beautiful, and I think our area is going to be very viable. As long as you can come and be a respectable neighbor and keep the place clean, that’s all I’m looking for.”
At 69, retired educator and social worker Margaret Hill said she worried the changes would wind up pricing out the people who put down roots in the community years ago.
“I don’t care how much money you bring here, it’s still our community,” said Hill, who moved to the Rock Lake neighborhood in 1984. “We want no secrets.”
But Lift Orlando has done mostly good work, she said.
“Do we always agree? The answer is no,” Hill added. “So we sit down and talk about it. We have had our come-to-Jesus meetings, but we work things out.”
In all, Lift Orlando has raised more than $100 million in grants, donations and investments from locally based corporations and foundations for its work, including a $4 million start-up loan from Dr. Phillips Charities and a $1 million grant from Wayne Densch Charities.
Lift’s current board of directors includes representatives from hospitals, banks, investment companies and law firms.
But for all its accomplishments, Lift has barely begun what will likely be the most challenging and important piece of the puzzle so far — a push to grow Black-owned businesses.
In May, West Lakes became the newest addition to the city-supported Orlando Main Street program, which has helped to boost such success stories as Mills50 and the Milk District. The move qualifies the West Lakes Market Street district to get $25,000 in start-up cash plus $5,000 to fund beautification projects.
West Lakes Market Street will be the fundraising entity used to support existing businesses and bring new ones to the area.
If successful, it will be the first time a majority Black neighborhood has made it through the program, according to Pauline Eaton, the city’s Main Street administrator, who said an earlier effort in Parramore failed for lack of community and business support.
She is more hopeful about West Lakes.
For Tim Ayers, executive director for the West Lakes Partnership and board member for the Market Street program, the hardest part of growing West Lakes is also the most important: getting businesses to take a chance on the community.
“Businesses go where the income resides,” he said. “We’re not one of the wealthiest, but we are one of the more stable neighborhoods.”
In West Lakes, most people are decades-long residents and many own their homes. And with the addition of higher quality affordable housing, he said, more of the younger renters who live in the neighborhood are looking to stay to raise their families there.
In January, even before the Market Street funds were approved, the neighborhood had a grassroots effort to bring opportunities to entrepreneurs, hoping that, as the neighborhood grows, Black business owners wouldn’t be left out.
Every Saturday merchants line the walking path of George Barker Park on Clear Lake along Monte Carlo Trail.
Nearly every business represented is Black-owned. More than half — local jewelry sellers, furniture makers, soap merchants and food vendors among them — were started by people who live in West Lakes.
Resident Karon Cannon, who owns Tea Craze, had been selling her tea at farmer’s markets since she started the company in her grandmother’s honor in 2013.
“It was very hard to get into [most] markets,” Cannon said, adding that, when she did, she was often one of the few Black business owners there.
The George Barker Park market is meant to rewrite that script, opening opportunities for Black entrepreneurs and giving them a network to share advice on business licensing, how to acquire supplies and ways to create enticing displays for their goods.
“The vision is to grow it and give more African American entrepreneurs a chance to start a business,” Cannon said.
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Paula Kittrell, who lives in Rock Lake, has been at the market nearly every Saturday since it started. She has a prime spot near the entrance. From her tent she sells chairs, tables, mirrors and other furniture and décor items she sources secondhand and restores or repurposes. She redesigns the furniture between interior design jobs at her company KP Conceptualizing.
“This is my love away from my love,” said Kittrell, who grew up in Winter Park, left the area for several years and returned to buy a home in Rock Lake so she could raise her son there.
She’d like to have her own storefront in the area, but lacks the start-up costs.
Keeyon Upkins, special projects manager for Lift Orlando and liaison to the West Lakes Market Street district, said that common dilemma is exactly what he hopes to change.
“I would love the story to be that somebody was a part of the [George Barker Park] market and was also a part of the Market Street district,” Upkins said. “And through the support of the district, [they] became so successful that they needed something more.”